The selection of Lutfur Rahman as Labour’s candidate for mayor has sent his opponents into a tailspin of despair. And not just among Labour members.
Politicians in all parties are trying to work out how he can be stopped. Those in Labour cling to the belief that Labour’s NEC will be so horrified by his selection that they will refuse to confirm his candidacy and instead impose their own choice before nominations for the election close on September 24.
There are others within Labour, especially those concerned about the people with whom Lutfur is surrounding himself, who are quietly encouraging another possibility – one which would underline the seriousness with which they view the situation. They are suggesting an anti-Lutfur candidate from the other main national parties, ie a single Coalition candidate for both the Tories and Lib Dems. And this idea is winning cross-party support.
This afternoon, the Lib Dem candidate, John Griffiths, held his launch party for the press at a restaurant in Brick Lane. Some fifteen party activists turned up, as did a cameraman from Channel S and a couple of photographers, but apart from that I was the only reporter there. Oddly for a press conference, no time was allotted for questions. It summed up the state of the once mighty Lib Dems in the borough.
Which is a shame, because in Griffiths they have a good candidate whose track record as a councillor until he lost his seat in 2006 was excellent. If you’ve been to York Hall in Bethnal Green recently, thank John: he was the man who initiated and led the campaign to save it from closure six years ago.
The party retains good ideas, including a thought-provoking pledge to devolve power from Tower Hamlets HQ in Mulberry Place to the various districts that comprise the borough. How many people say they live in Tower Hamlets, the Lib Dems ask. Rather, residents prefer to say they live in Bow, for example, or on the Isle of Dogs, or in Spitalfields, Wapping, Whitechapel, Stepney, or Shadwell. The Lib Dems therefore argue that these areas should have the chance to run some of their own affairs, along the lines of town councils. Moves are already afoot in Wapping to make this happen.
However, even Lib Dems quietly agree that they have little chance of seeing these ideas put into practice on their own. So their brightest minds are actively considering talks with Tory counterparts to run just one candidate. Such a deal would of course require either John to stand down, or Neil King from the Tories to do so – or both. Or they could run as a mayor and deputy mayor joint ticket. Or, more likely, given that this is Tower Hamlets, where race counts, a ticket that includes candidates from both the Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi “communities”.
Would Tory and Lib Dem HQs accept such a proposition? In normal circumstances, undoubtedly no. But Tower Hamlets politicians are arguing that these are exceptional circumstances. They say they would tell their superiors that, given the controversy of Labour’s selection process, they are acting in the interests of democracy and that it is a good opportunity to take control of a £1.2billion Olympic borough.
Crucially, they also argue that the ramifications of such a move would ensure national press attention, which would help boost what is otherwise expected to be a terrible turnout of about 25% next month.
In other words, strategists hope the move would create its own momentum. They have about 10 days in which to decide…